Beautiful Suzhou – Snaps from the City

In a week from today, we will begin our trip back to Canada for the summer!  First, we’ll be stopping by Las Vegas to see some friends get married (more on that next week!) and we also have plans to drive around the area a bit to see The Grand Canyon in all its glory. We were originally planning to take a 10 day road trip back to Manitoba, but those plans fell through when we learned that the car rental alone would cost us $1500.  So, instead, we’re going to take a camping trip at our favourite park (Rushing River in Ontario) while we’re back.

 

I am excited to cook over the fire, and wake up to the sound of loons, but mostly I look forward to the smell of fresh air and being surrounded by trees.  I miss the smell of trees a lot.  I actually played a gig a few weeks back at a large park just outside of Shanghai.  It was the most grass I’d seen in about a year.  Since then, I’ve been dying to get back into the Canadian wilderness.

 

That’s not to say I don’t love Suzhou though!  Lately, it’s been quite rainy, but for about a month before the rain hit, we had gorgeous clear skies and (mostly) clean air.  I took advantage of that time to snap some shots of the city we currently call home.  I thought people might like to see Suzhou the way I see it.

 

Suzhou has plenty of beautiful parks and gardens.  I know I’ve posted some of these pictures of them before, but they’re just so pretty, I have to show you again!

 

Suzhou also has some interesting architecture outside of their gardens.  For some reason I don’t understand, China is obsessed with creating replicas of famous buildings from around the world.  Beijing has a replica of Sydney Opera House, and Shanghai has its very own copy of the Eiffel Tower, and Suzhou apparently, didn’t want to feel left out.  So they made a replica of London Bridge (sort of).

 

There are definitely some inaccuracies, but over all, it looks pretty cool.  The bridge is mostly used for wedding pictures, and the surrounding area has plenty of places for photo-ops.

 

Although Suzhou is pretty during the day, I find this water-town most beautiful at night.   Dave and I have spent many evenings walking around, taking pictures of the high-rises that are popping up all around SIP (we live in Suzhou Industrial Park).   I love the way the buildings here are all lit up.

 

The canals are also gorgeous at night.  The reflections from the buildings give them a dream-like feel.

 

Of course, Xinghai Square is such a buzz of lights and traffic, it makes for some very interesting night photos as well.

 

The city recently replaced the lights along the street outside of our apartment complex, which was a nice change.  The old ones, though pretty, were getting pretty rusty, but the new ones are nice and bright white.

 

Central park is also very pretty at night.  We often walk through there on our way to (or from) one of our favourite restaurants:  Lu Yu.  They specialize in a type of roast fish that’s unlike any fish you’ve ever eaten in your life.

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Kao Yu:  It tastes better than it looks!

Kao Yu has actually become a bit of a weekly tradition we have with some friends.  We walk down there (it’s about a half hour walk each way), and meet up to discuss our weeks and enjoy some good food and draft beer.  The walk there takes us through Suzhou’s Central Park, and I’ve brought my camera along a few times now.

But as much as we like Kao Yu, there is one restaurant in Suzhou we love even more.  A few months back, we told our bilingual friend, Kevin, that if he could find us a restaurant that makes Guizhou food (the province where we lived prior to moving to Suzhou), that we would take him there for dinner.  We’ve gone there pretty much every week since he found it.  We’ve brought countless friends and even people visiting from America and Argentina…every person we’ve brought has been floored by how good the food is!

In addition to the food and the company being so great at 去贵州, the view is also pretty spectacular.  We usually sit outside, across from the little island near Suzhou University.

Of course, I’m not the only one that’s caught on that Suzhou is an incredibly photographic city.  My friend, Kevin, also enjoys taking photos of this gorgeous place we all call home.  I asked him if I could include some of his shots, and he kindly said I could. Here they are:

That’s all for this post!  I’ll be back soon with an update on life here.  We’ve been so incredibly busy lately!  There are plenty of stories to come!

See you soon!

Smog and Sandstorms

Dave and I had plans today to explore the city.  Suzhou recently opened its 3rd metro line, and it has made all sorts of local attractions easier to get to.  We thought exploring the city and getting some more photos would be a grand way to spend the day…but then the smog came…

I realized while talking to my family this morning that many of the people back home can’t even begin to understand what pollution is all about and the many ways it impacts our lives here, so I thought it might make for an interesting article.

**Note** Very few pictures in this article will be my own…they’ve mostly been borrowed from the internet.  If I did take the picture, I’ll indicate it in the caption

Our Global Pollution Problem

Pollution is a problem all over the world.  In India, I saw unbelievable amounts of garbage on the road, and I brushed my teeth with bottled water to avoid getting sick from the tap water.

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The firework displays during Diwali this year set off the AQI scale to more than 1000 and put the country in a state of emergency.   For comparison, Toronto’s current AQI is 17

Although much better than India and China, Vietnam also has some pretty terrible pollution problems.  The number of motorcyles on the road leave your lungs pretty sore by the end of a day sight-seeing in HoChiMin City.  Phu Quoc is also a giant dumping ground for garbage.

Even in the beautiful Caribbean, you can find all sorts of pollution issues.  Water there is generally unsafe to drink, and although resorts do a good job of keeping their shores clean, the same can’t be said in other areas of the country.

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This was taken in Haina, Dominican Republic

Pollution is a problem globally, there’s no doubt.   I look forward to my time in Canada every year.  The fresh air smells so fantastic, and even in the heart of Winnipeg, I’ve never smelt the tinny scent of PM2.5.  Yet…where do you think this picture was taken?

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This is in Sarnia, Ontario, where First Nations residents in a nearby town are suffering from the effects of this pollution.

What I’m trying to say here is that pollution is an issue everywhere.  If you’re lucky enough to never have seen anything like this with your own eyes, you are a minority on this planet and this is a case where being a minority is a good thing…

The Lingo

In Guizhou (the Chinese province where we lived prior to moving to Suzhou), the pollution isn’t so bad.  That’s not to say the air was perfect there (because it’s such a poor province, many of the vehicles on the road are old and blow large amounts of black exhaust), but we never needed masks or felt like our health was at risk.

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Guiyang is in the green zone in central China (the one surrounded by beige zones).  Shanghai and Suzhou is in an orange zone.

In Suzhou, things are different.  We are only about 100km west of Shanghai, so we get a lot of our pollution from the factories out that way.  On a bad day, our AQI level will go up to 200 or occasionally 300.  During the current sandstorm, we are sitting somewhere between 450 and 600 on the AQI scale.  What exactly does that mean, you might ask?

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This was today’s reading in Suzhou.  596 is the highest I’ve ever seen it here

AQI is the global term that indicates how clean the air is in any particular place.  Air Quality Index becomes a very important part of your life when you live in a city with a pollution problem.  Most people have apps on their phones that tell them whether they should wear a mask outside.  I don’t use an app because I have an easier way to tell. Suzhou’s iconic Pants Building is within eyesight of my apartment.  I make a point of looking out the window every day, and I can usually tell how bad the pollution is by how clearly I can see the pants building.

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Dave took these pictures last year.  Today looks a lot like the picture on the right

Something else people are aware of here in Suzhou are the different KINDS of pollution. I’ll begin explaining this with a story…

Last year, one of my jobs as a teacher was to help students prepare for their IGCSE spoken exams.  To do that, I met with students individually, gave them a topic and had them tell me what they could about that topic.  The topic I chose one day was ‘The Environment’.  One girl really impressed me, as she started rattling off different types of air pollution (PM2.5, PM10 etc.).  I was FLOORED that she knew those terms.  I had only lived in Suzhou for a few months at that point.

Now, these terms are part of my regular vocabulary.   I frequently say things like ‘PM2.5 levels are brutal this week’, or ‘well this stand storm is mostly bringing in PM10 particles, which aren’t QUITE so bad’.   All this ‘PM’ talk refers to the size of the particles.  PM10 particles are slightly bigger, but equally as harmful as PM2.5.  Both get trapped in your lungs and build up over time and both are linked to lung cancer, lung disease and even brain issues.   Of course, living in China for a short-term period doesn’t mean that I’ll come home with lung cancer, but the elderly in China really do suffer.

 

The Effects

Pollution is more than just something you see on the news.  It’s something that is real and it affects a large portion of the world on a day to day basis.  Here are some of the ways it effects me:

  1. I sometimes need to wear a mask to go outside
  2. I constantly worry about the quality of air in my home and at work
  3. I spend hundreds of dollars every year on filters and machines designed to clean my air
  4. I have had a lung infection so bad that I needed to be on 4 different medications to get better.  I was using an asthma puffer for 3 months after that infection.
  5. Colds last longer and are much more severe than they are elsewhere I’ve lived
  6. If I don’t ride my e-bike for a few days, I will get dust on my pants when I sit down.
  7. I dry my clothes in my bathroom because if I dry them outside, they’ll be dirty by the time I wear them again (most people in China don’t have clothes dryers)
  8. Hanging onto a railing as I climb up or down outdoor stairs will leave me with dirty hands.
  9. I go into coughing fits when I go to a country with clean air.  My lungs literally try and eject the garbage that has built up over the months.
  10. After a particularly dusty day, I’ll wake up with build up in my eyes and a bit of a sore throat.
  11. When the PM2.5 is especially bad (usually in January or February), you can actually taste metal in the air.
  12. I often worry about the long-term health hazards of pollution.  The obvious ones don’t worry me as much (lung cancer, emphysema etc.) but after recently discovering that PM2.5 is connected to alzymers disease, I’ve been in a constant state of worrying about the health of my brain.
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You can always tell if a car in a parking lot hasn’t been driven in a while….the dust builds up over time.  Similarly, it’s important to keep your apartment well maintained, because dust collects inside too

Pollution levels are a constant presence in my life.  I need to know when they’re high so I can turn on my air purifier.  I also need to know about the air quality so that I know when it’s appropriate for me to partake in one of my favourite pastimes: walking.

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Since I was just a little girl, I’ve always loved walked.  It started with walks around the block with my Pepere, and it evolved into walking my dog in the forest trails of St. Malo Provincial Park.  When I moved to Guiyang, walking was one of the ways I dealt with the stress of living in such a difficult city.  In Suzhou…taking a walk is off the table some days.

How We Get Through It

On days like today, we mostly stay indoors.  At home, we have 2 air purifiers, so we definitely have those running while we’re in the apartment.  My classrooms also have air purifiers, but unfortunately, my school doesn’t see an advantage to making sure our offices also have clean air.  Air purifiers can be a bit pricey and they seem to become obsolete frequently, making it impossible to find a new filter for a device you purchased only 6 months before.  Our solution has been SmartAir Purifiers…they’re a small company that make purifiers that work well, for only 600rmb (most other purifiers that do a decent job cost up to 5000rmb…).  If you’re living in mainland China, check out their website.  They’re well worth the money.

How This Effects YOU

If you’re reading this from Canada, you might be thinking that I’m crazy for choosing to live here.  I know the risks, but I still take them.  There are risks living in Manitoba as well.  Hitting the ditch in a snow storm, or sliding into oncoming traffic during winter/spring is every bit as much of a risk as living somewhere where pollution is a problem.  I check the PM2.5 levels the same as you check the temperature to know how many sweaters you should wear under your parka.

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Seeing smashed up cars in Manitoba is normal.  I was involved in 2 ice-related accidents in 2012 alone.  I hate driving in Winter far more than I hate PM2.5

You may also be thinking that countries like China and India are poorly managed and that if they ‘got their acts together’, this wouldn’t be an issue.  But let me ask you this….

Where are the majority of your ‘things’ made?  The truth of the matter is that we export our pollution to China to cut costs.  One of the reasons things are cheaper coming from China is because health and safety standards aren’t as big of a deal here….it’s something to think about before you shop at places like Walmart, Superstore or other ‘low cost’ chains.  You’re paying 50 cents less, but the global environment is suffering.

Furthermore…we live in a very wasteful world.  I recently got into a heated debate about the use of paper cups in the office.  I think they should be banned, whereas other people really like their convenience.  What’s important to remember is that by using disposable items (on a regular basis), you’re contributing to our landfill problems, as well as creating a need for more factories in the world.  For more information on that, I found this nifty article written by Time Magazine called ‘Throwaway Living’.  Be sure to check it out if you’re interested in the topic.

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If hearing about this very sad state of affairs has depressed you, here is a picture of Poe to help you feel happy again. 

PS..I know it’s been a while, but I have 3 posts in the works:

  • Our weekend in Seoul
  • Catching up on Life in Suzhou
  • Beautiful Suzhou (I’ve been on a picture taking mission lately)

The Terracotta Warriors

The Terracotta warriors are easily one of China’s most famous and fascinating pieces of history.  This clay army was created more than 2200 years ago for China’s famed emperor,  Qin Shi Huang.   I mentioned in my Great Wall post that China was originally several small settlements that all had separate walls, but later in history, an emperor united all the territories into 1 country.  This emperor, Qin, was the same guy who commissioned the Terracotta Army, so that he’d have ample protection in the afterlife.

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It took 700,000 workers roughly 40 years to build this magnificent army.  Each soldier (and there – are over 8000 of them) is unique.  Torsos, legs and arms were mass-produced with a single mold.  The bodies for different types of warriors differed, of course (archers had different bodies than generals, of course), but other than that, the torsos were made in a pretty uniform way.  The faces, however, are all different, and it is thought that each one is based on one of the 700,000 workers who built this fascinating army.

As I mentioned, there are several different types of soldiers found in the 3 excavation pits.  Foot soldiers, archers, generals and cavalry are all present in the pits and you can learn about each of them by reading the many signs put up around the exhibits.

Terracotta is a type of clay, so sadly, many of these soldiers have been damaged by collapsing roofs and enemy armies.  Many of the soldiers are missing their heads or other body parts, mostly due to military attacks.

Archaeologists have been working on restoring some of the damaged soldiers for years, and have discovered some interesting things throughout the process.  For example, the warriors were originally painted and very colourlful.  Also, there is a whole section of warriors that are based on Chinese minorities and different ethnic groups throughout the country.  This was a diverse army!

 

One of my favourite parts of the visit was seeing the area where warriors are being put back together, piece by piece.   When I wasn’t taking Literature or Writing classes in University, I was taking every Classical History class I could.    What always amazed me about this field of study, is how much archaeologists are able to learn from a site like the Terracotta Warriors.  Just by studying these old pieces of clay, we can learn about ancient military customs, tools, building materials and countless other details.  It’s even widely believed that the Terracotta Warriors have Hellenistic roots.  Their shape and the way they were created is very similar to Greek artwork.

This army was our main reason for wanting to see Xi’an during the holiday.  I must say, the Terracotta Warriors are well-worth seeing, but I wouldn’t recommend seeing them during the October Holiday.  The crowds were positively dangerous and more than once, Dave had to grab my hand to get me through the swarms of people.  If I hadn’t had photography to keep my mind off the crowds, I would have been in a straight up panic attack.

The worst of the crowds were in Pit #1.  This is the most famous pit, where you can see 6000+ soldiers and 50 Chariots.

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The Crowd outside of Pit #1.  There were easily this many people behind us in line as well…

I assumed the guards were going to let a certain number of people in at a time, but instead they let everyone in at once…

Unfortunately, the crowds were so intense that I never actually got to see the warriors from the front.  I waited for ages, but when people started to panic and push their way through to the front, Dave grabbed me and pulled me out. Neither of us are sure how that railing holds out…

 

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This is the shot I COULD have gotten, if it hadn’t been for the crowds.  Instead I found it in Google Images so that you can at least see what everyone was rushing to try and see.  

Once we got around the corner, the crowd seemed to thin out.  There was an emergency exit that a lot of people took just to get away from the swarms of people.  I didn’t want to give up entirely, so we kept on, along with thousands of other people, including little old ladies and small children.  One particularly brutish guy (who was twice the size of most of the people around him) ended up getting my elbow to his chest and my finger in his face as I told him to knock it off!   He did calm down, so I’m glad I did it…but all I could keep thinking in this crowd was how easy a stampede could happen.

Here are some pictures that I DID manage to get of the warriors.

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This was right at the end of the exhibit, near the exit.  We figured we should try and get at least 1 picture of us there!

After pit 1, we headed to a nearby restaurant for lunch and some tea to calm us down.  We were also shown Emperor Qin’s tomb sight (a mountain), but we weren’t allowed in, because of the high mercury levels there.  Emperor Qin actually believed that Mercury was the key to longevity, so he ate it as much as he could.  It’s probably what killed him.   At least he left behind quite the legacy!!!

Next week we leave for Vietnam and Laos!  It should be a memorable trip!!!

I’m planning on blogging throughout the trip, much like I did in India last year, so prepare for lots of posts about all sorts of cool stuff!  33 days in South East Asia is bound to be one heck of an inspiration writing-wise!!

 

 

Golden Week Holiday – Xi’an

 

With Christmas coming up, and New Year’s day after that, I’m hoping to have a bit of time to catch up on my blog in the coming weeks.  For now, I’ll begin with a post about our Golden Week holiday in Xian.

The Decision

Every year Dave and I struggle with a difficult choice.  One one hand, travelling during golden week is a nightmare of crowds and scams, and neither of us can be bothered to deal with any of it.  On the other hand, it’s a chance to travel…our love of travelling always wins out, and this year, we decided to embark on an adventure to see China’s renown Terracotta Warriors, in Xi’an.

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Although Dave and I have always taken trips on our own, we decided to switch things up for this holiday and we went to Xi’an with our friend, Kevin.  We’ve met so many new people this year, and it’s been great expanding our group of friends.  When you only live in a city for a year, it’d difficult to make quality friendships, because you’re mostly limited to only people you work with.  In year two, you’ve had a chance to meet people outside of your school as well.  It’s so great having a good base of friends to hang out with, who share our values, our interests and our love for KTV!!  (except Kevin…he hates KTV :P.  This is further proof to my suspicion that he’s not really Chinese at all!)

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A night market in the streets of Xi’an

Because China’s train system is both more convenient and more cost effective than flying, we took the high speed train to Xian.  The trip takes 6.5 hours from Suzhou, but with electric plugs and good company, the time flew by.  Before we knew it, we were in China’s Shaanxi Province, and the former capital of the nation:  Xian.

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In the train!

Around Xi’An

Although we mostly traveled to Xian for the Warriors, there was plenty else to see while we were there.  Our hostel was located near two of the most famous buildings in the city:  The drum tower and The Bell Tower.  Both are beautiful during the day, but even more spectacular at night.

We were also close to another of Xi’an’s main attractions:  The Muslim Quarter.  Chinese Muslim food is some of the best food in the country, and you can find it in abundance in Xi’an.  From street carts, to shops to restaurants, if you enjoy mutton and spicy, high flavoured food, Xi’an will be a treat for your taste buds!

The nightlife in Xi’an was most enjoyable for me.  I found it to be quite hot there, but at night the temperature would drop a bit, and it became easier to wander around the city and see the sights that many tourists don’t usually see.  We ended up in one area where there were dozens of tiny traditional Chinese restaurants.  In that same area, we saw a ‘tea cup breaking’ ceremony that’s suppose to give you luck, and, of course, I made a sport of bargaining for gifts in Xi’an’s markets.  After 4 years in China, I’ve become pretty good at getting good deals in these funny little places!

Xi’an has a lot to offer for tourism, which is why 8 million people came to visit the city during Golden week in 2015.  2016 didn’t seem to be much different, because everywhere we went, we were fighting the crowds.  If we were less positive of people, I would say that the crowds ruined our holiday, but we did our best to stay positive.

All in all, I’ll remember Xi’an for the fantastic meals we ate, and the terracotta warriors. They deserve a post of their own, so I’ll be writing about them next time!!

Stay tuned for a history lesson on China’s Qin Dynasty, as well as some fabulous anecdotes and photos from our trip to see one of China’s National Treasures!

An Eventful End to Summer

It’s hard to believe that Dave and I have nearly been back in China for a month already!  The past 3+ weeks have flown by possibly even faster than our time in Canada did!  I sat down today with the intention of writing about Vancouver and realized that until I updated all the things that have been going on out here, I couldn’t focus on another topic.  So here we go!!

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Here’s a picture of Suzhou’s iconic ‘Pants Building’ being cleaned.  Just because…

I’ve  Been Performing as a Lead Vocalist!

Until recently, I was working back up or in duets with The Chairmen.  It’s been great fun playing with those guys, but when Kit (our fearless leader) approached me and asked if I’d do a duet show with our guitarist, Mark, I jumped on the opportunity.  We’ve only done one show so far, but it was pretty cool singing all 3 sets by myself.  Best of all, Mark is super flexible about what play, so I’ve been able to do a bunch of new stuff.  It was a nice switch up after all the Adele and Stevie Nicks I’ve been doing since May!!

I’m Competing in the Suzhou Expat Talent Show!

This one came about in a bit of a crazy way…Back in July, one of the HR staff at my school contacted me about representing the school at some kind of school district party.  I agreed because I knew I’d already be back in Suzhou by that point and all was good.  They knew I cover Adele, so they recommended I do “Rolling in the Deep”.  I was cool with it.

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We ran into our friend, Nick, at the show.  He was there on behalf of  his new school, Eaton House.  (Also, my face looks like that because he was photobombing us)

Fast forward to the day of the ‘government party’…it turns out that this was less of a school district party and more of a ‘government beer party’.  There was a full band there waiting for me along with about 100 government officials and 200 teachers (etc) from schools in the area.

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I had a tough act to follow…this (rather tone-deaf) district big wig sang some traditional Chinese songs before my performance

The real kicker was when HR Frank told me…about an hour before I went on…that if it went well, I would be representing Suzhou Foreign Language School in this year’s Expat Talent Show.  Notice that he didn’t ask…

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Oh yeah, and that talent show will be televised and recorded in front of a huge audience.  And it’s in 4 days…
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This band didn’t like me very much…They wouldn’t believe me when I said I did the song in A Minor (I don’t have a terribly high voice) and they refused to play it in my key.  I had to sing it high, and I wasn’t as strong as I could have been, but it was alright…I guess…

It went well.  Fast forward to 4 DAYS LATER (!!!!) and it was talent show time!  There was a mix up with the band (mainly, there wasn’t one) but I lucked out when I learned that The Chairmen (my band) were also going to be performing (the rest of them all work for the same school).  They ended up backing me for my song too, and the performance went pretty well!  Here, you can see it yourself!!!

To my credit, I don’t feel like I looked as unprepared as I felt!  I was very relieved to have Kit and Mark there!  I also had a student come to see me perform, which was pretty awesome.  I have awesome students.  Have I mentioned that?

I have no idea what the results were for this show.  From what I understand, they are going to be watching video auditions for the next month, and choosing people to go onto the second round from there.  I just hope I find out with more than 4 days to prepare this time!!!

I Am Writing for a News APP and a Newspaper!!

The night of the talent show, I received a text message from an editor at Nihao Suzhou, an APP designed to help foreigners in China (it’s actually a branch of Nihao China…every city has their own, I believe).  They had been for writers earlier in the week, and I’d inquired along with a link to my blog.  The editor liked my work and asked me to write an 800 word piece about anything I wanted.  A week later, I was published!

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The article was pretty successful and received over 2000 views in the first day.  Carrie, my editor, told me to go ahead and write another article if I wanted, and I submitted that one today!  Also, she was so happy with the article that she recommended it for publication in the Suzhou Daily Newspaper!  So there’s that, too!

 

I Lost the Olympics

Dave and I decided that we wanted to be more social this year, so we’ve been busy trying ot get involved in the expat community.  Dave’s joined a gaelic football team, I’ve been doing gigs (and everything else above)…and we subscribed to this really cool website called InterNations.

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The Olympic Athletes

InterNations plans all sorts of events across the city.  The one we attended last weekend was held at the Kempinski Hotel, where there is a Paulaner Brewery.  We got to learn about the ancient German art of beer making and we spent the afternoon playing games with a few friends we’d dragged along, and a LOT of new friends that we met at the event.

I did not win.  Not by a long shot.  But it WAS a blast!  And I feel like we met some really cool people.  It was definitely a good time and we’ll be attending another InterNations event next Friday.

School Started

September 1st was our first day of classes.  I am transitioned into a full-time English teacher (no more cooking classes) and am getting to know my 2 new grade 7 classes!  So far, my new coworkers are upbeat and awesome, and I’m having a great time!

So that’s been our last 3 and a half weeks!  Pretty wild!  Now I need to catch up on some sleep…

Teaching in China

Suzhou Foreign Language school’s Autumn semester begins on September 1st.  As I prepare for my classes and plan out my term, I thought it might be a good idea to write a little bit about what it’s like teaching in China!

(Spoiler…it’s awesome!!)

I’m not going to lie…living abroad isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be.  When we arrived in Shanghai last week, after a sleepless 11 hour flight, I was not prepared to deal with the bus depot’s toilets or the long ride back to Suzhou.  I wanted to get right back into the plane and return to Canada.  But as I sat there, fighting back tears of exhaustion in the bus terminal, Dave reminded me that soon I’d be back at work, and that calmed me right down.  I thought of all my students and all the plans I had for them this year, and I knew that everything would be okay.  Teaching is what I was always meant to do and I can’t express enough how rewarding it can be.  I’ve taught children as young as 3 years old, 50 year old business men and everything in between, and I’ve gotta say…it doesn’t matter what age or level you are teaching…being an educator is a blast!

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So pumped to see these guys again!  Can’t believe they’re going to be in Grade 8 this year!!

No matter how awesome the job is, though, the beginning of the semester offers some rather large challenges.  If you know about them ahead of time, it can help a lot, here’s a list of tips I have for teachers at the beginning of the term.

1.)  Be Prepared!!!

I once had an interviewer ask me what my ‘super power’ is.  I replied, without hesitation, that it is organization.  My ability to stay on top of my chaotic life all goes back to my day planner.  Without it…I am lost.  I am the master of lists and checking off items is sometimes all that gets me through hectic days.  But that’s the key…it DOES get me through!

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I started rubbing off on my students…at the beginning of the term, in food and nutrition, many of my students just left all their vegetables all over the counters…by the end of the 1st term, they were neatly putting things in bowls.  They agreed that it made it much easier cooking this way!

I recommend check lists to everyone and everyone because they allow you to stay on top of everything (and not forget about important events or tasks!) but also because they can give you a real sense of accomplishment.  I recently had a coworker tease me for having ‘start grade 7 ppt’ as one of my check-list items.  He thought it was silly that I had only ‘part’ of a task listed as an item on my list.

So,  I asked him:  “What’s the hardest part of making your weekly Power Point?”  He answered “getting it started…”  Boom!  Item #1 is done and once you start, it’s not nearly as daunting of a task.

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Literally, my day planner RIGHT NOW…I leave little boxes in front of the tasks so I can fill them in when I’m done!  Also…notice the colour coding???  It’s an ongoing joke in the middle school that when a student asks if I have finished grading their work or if I know where something is, my response is ‘Of course!  I am VERY organized!’

I also firmly believe in the power of lesson plans.  I know countless teachers who go into their classes with an idea of what they’re doing…but with no physical plan.  I honestly have no idea how they do it…I lose track of time, I miss items and I let the class get carried away in discussions when I don’t have a proper plan.  Don’t get me wrong…discussions are great in an ESL classroom!  It’s what you WANT!!  But in your 8:30am writing class, it isn’t always good when little Tom asks me ‘what I like about Suzhou’ to try and distract me from teaching about Present Perfect tense…

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I am trying a new way of doing lesson planning this year.  Last year I was doing much more detailed plans, but then I realized that my Power Points were pretty much all I needed.  Now, I’m focusing on the big items I want to cover every week.  I leave space for notes to comment on things that went well (or badly) and for information students who really excelled or may need extra help.

And going Macro…Term plans can also be an excellent idea, especially when you don’t have a book to teach from!  Last year, none of my classes had actual textbooks, so it became very important for me to plan ahead to make sure I was covering all the material they’d need to know for their IGCSE exams. Even when I DID have a book to teach from, when I was teaching Elementary and Kindergarten, my term plans were crucial to making sure all content was covered.  It was a simple outline for the term, but an outline nonetheless.  I recommend these tools to anyone! (And if you have any questions about layouts or things you should have in any of these plans, shoot me a question in the comments section!  I’m always happy to help a fellow teacher!)

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2.)  But not too prepared…

This may seems silly…but in China, you need to expect things to change.  Your classes might get moved around or cancelled at the last second.  I’ve often walked into my classroom to find no students there…when I track down their homeroom teacher it’s usually because some other activity was planned and they forgot to tell me.  This is normal in China.  You have to roll with the punches because like it or not…these things are CONSTANT!

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Leading up to the Drama Festival I was losing my mind because each class was so important for rehearsal, and my classes kept getting cancelled so the students could go horseback riding…or because they had a dance rehearsal to go to instead…it was Maddening!!

These types of things used to drive me CRAZY until I had someone tell me the reasoning behind it.  China is what is known as a ‘Shame Culture’.  I’ve written about ‘saving face’ in previous posts, and that’s what’s coming into play here.  Things are often planned at the last second in here because it reduces the chance of having to cancel events.  Cancelling an event is very bad in Chinese culture and knowing that actually made me feel a lot better about the ways it affects me.  People here aren’t stupid or disorganized…the cultural norms are just different.  That is something VERY important to remember when living here!

3.)  Be Prepared for all the September/October Holiday Mayhem

The beginning of term always takes it out of me…  Whether you are in a Training Center, a Foreign Language School or an International school (the 3 basic types of schools in China). the beginning of term has many challenges to overcome.

First, you need to get back into the groove of things and find your flow in the classroom.  Then, you have to get all of your ‘beginning of term admin stuff’ out of the way…then you have to deal with 2 holidays within the first month of teaching!!!

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“Teacher’s Day” is also a mini holiday (no time off) in September.  Students bring you all sorts of little goodies and the school makes you feel very appreciated!!

Mid-Autumn Festival is a lovely holiday (one of my favourites!) celebrated by getting together with family and eating Moon Cakes.  It takes place in the beginning of September and it usually means a 3 day holiday for teachers.

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Delicious, Delicious moon cakes!!!

Then, there is China’s “National Day”, which actually lasts a week.  It’s known in the tourism industry as “The Golden Mess” because there are literally over 1 billion people all on holiday at the same time in China!  The regular tourist sights are PACKED and even the lesser known sights are still teaming with people.  We traveled to Xiamen our first year in China during the holiday and it was uncomfortable trying to get anywhere, because you were shoulder to shoulder with tourists…

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Beijing…literally, shoulder to shoulder….

And then there’s the other problem with all these days off…Holidays are great, but they REALLY mess with your schedule!  In China, if you are given 3 days off, it doesn’t necessary mean that you don’t owe some of them back.  For example, this year, Mid-Autumn festival falls on September 15,16 and 17 (a Thursday, Friday and Saturday).  In order to make up for that time off, schools open on Sunday and the week following the holiday becomes a 6 day week, with 2 Tuesdays in it.  My first year, I had to have someone sit me down and draw a chart so I understood what was actually happening and when I had to work!!

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4.)  Form a Good Relationship with your Co-Teachers/Homeroom Teachers

I cannot stress enough how important this is!  It seems like common sense…who doesn’t want to get along with the people they work with?  But too often I see people treat their Chinese counterparts in the education system poorly (and vice versa).  There seems to be a mentality at some schools (and even in some departments at my own school) that it’s US vs THEM!!!  This is SO counterproductive!

I’ve always tried my very best to be kind to the people I work with…to me that’s just common decency.  When I was at the training center, I became good friends with Talia and Kayla.  They weren’t teachers, but they were the people who helped me translate for parents and made sure that parents got important information about homework and students’ progress.  Now, I work at a Foreign Language school where I’m co-teaching with Chinese teachers.  We may not always see eye to eye on the way some things should be handled (education systems vary greatly from country to country!), but I always try to find a reasonable compromise.

I also do my best to never to create more work for my co-teachers.  I’ve worked with teachers that wait until the last minute to do their progress reports or who don’t grade their papers until they’re told they HAVE to, even when they know that their Chinese counterpart needs them to finish up before they themselves can begin.  Once more, I feel like this should be common sense, but I’ve seen it happen SO many times!!!

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Too often, Expats won’t even invite their Chinese coworkers out to dinners and things.  I always make sure to invite anyone and everyone in my office and a lot of the time, they come out!  Ivy (in the middle) has been such a good friend to me over the past year…I can’t imagine how I could have gotten through some things without her (like when I went to the ‘acupuncturist’ and when we got Hugo and Poe.)  I don’t understand why people don’t put in more effort with one another!

This doesn’t only extend to the classroom either.  Staff rooms can be tricky when you have a mixture of different cultures together.  For example, the Chinese staff typically don’t want to have the air conditioners on in the summer or the heaters on in the winter.  It’s a belief in China that they both blow dirty air, so they prefer to open the window.  I run hot, so this has always been an issue for me in summer, but I compromised and bought myself a fan.  On days where it’s particularly humid, I ask if I can turn on the AC for 15 minutes or so, to dry out the air.  Then, when the room is cool, I turn it off again!  There’s no need to be demanding…you’re in THEIR country!  And it’s amazing, because 9 times out of 10, when you are respectful, so are they!!!  I didn’t even have to ask by the end of the year…my dear friend Ivy would go and switch on the AC when it started to get uncomfortable.

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One of my Grade 5 classes at Interlingua.  Notice they’re all in parkas?  Parents frequently requested that we turn off the heaters so that their kids wouldn’t ‘get sick’. 

5.  Extra Work = Extra Awesome!

I’ve found in China (and pretty much everywhere else in the world too) that the better you are at your job, the more you are asked to do.  It can be a bit much sometimes when you’re an overachiever (I may fit that description…), but I always remind myself that I am asked to do things because I’m doing well.  The bright side of those extra projects is that you expand yourself SO MUCH when you take them on!  Last year I organized the school’s first yearbook and hosted the annual Drama Festival, both in the second term.

Both events were SO fantastic!!!  Not only did the students work hard, but they also saw ME working hard…that does wonders for your relationship with them.  When they know that a teacher actually cares about them…it’s like the game changes a little bit.  There are so many foreigners teaching China that are only here for the visa and so they can live abroad….and that’s okay!  That’s how I started out too…but then I fell in love with the job and now, I take that job very seriously!  And students can always tell when they have a teacher who is present and putting in effort vs the teachers that show up and do what they have to do.

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The Yearbook was such a worthwhile project as well…not only was it a lot of fun to put together, but it really expressed what it’s like being in the IGCSE department at Suzhou Foreign Language School

Being a positive influence is SO important.  As an educator, I know that my students are learning more from me than just what is coming out of a text book.  My boss, Nathan, is a prime example of teaching through doing…As I’ve mentioned before, he does a lot of work with Migrant schools and other charities around the city, and this year, our grade 8 class organized a big fundraiser for the migrant schools Nathan works with!  It was so awesome watching them find ways to raise money and they really did a great job!  Students are watching you ALL the time!  Be an inspiration!!

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I encourage Michael to be more positive all the time (he tends to mope a lot…).  I was surprised when I saw this on one of his worksheets.  He aspires to be more optimistic (a word I taught him!) because I’m optimistic.  That’s the biggest reward I could ask for as a teacher!

6.)  Have Fun with It!!!

Lastly, make sure to have fun teaching!!  It’s an AWESOME job and at most schools you are given plenty of opportunities to let your own skills shine.  I mentioned earlier that I didn’t have textbooks for any of my classes last year.  That may have intimidated some teachers (which is why my boss offered me a few textbooks I could follow along with if I needed), but for me…it meant I got to be creative.

In Food and Nutrition, I decided to teach my students about culture and how it relates to food.  I did focuses on Mexico, Brazil, Jamaica, Italy, France, India and then I also taught them about December Holidays around the world (and the foods people eat during those holidays).  It ended up being a tonne of fun!  Because I’m so interested in both travel and cooking, I was able to shape this class around my own interests and talents.  It worked out well for everyone, I think!

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At Easter, I taught my Grade 7 girls to dye their deviled eggs.  When I taught them about Jamaica, we made Jerk Seasoning and had topped some deviled eggs with it (SOOO good!).   They liked the dish so much they asked if we could do it again!

For Drama, I used my writing skills and training to have the students write their own plays for the drama festival!   I’m also very competitive and I turn everything into competitions within my classroom.  The students ended up LOVING the way we chose which play we’d perform in each class.

The Drama Festival was a huge success because I used the skills I had to make it happen.  Best of all, I learned a lot along the way!  I’d never been given an opportunity to direct before, nor had I ever coordinated an event like that.  I developed new skills while using skills I already had.  It was a perfect combo 🙂

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One of the groups in my Grade 8 Boys class presenting their play to the other students.  They were actually the winners and the whole class had a great time learning their parts

So that’s the beauty of my job!  I decided to try and keep my posts shorter this year, but as I was writing, I just couldn’t stop!  I’m far too in love with my job and have so much advice to give!!  I do hope that you’ve found this informative and if you’re teaching in an ESL classroom yourself, and if you are just reading to know what it’s like to be a teacher, I hope you got a good idea of how awesome my job is 🙂

If you have any comments or questions about anything I do…feel free to as in the comments section below!  Thanks for checking in!

An Update on Life in Suzhou (Part 2)

Another day, another blog post!  We decided to change things up and go to a Starbucks out in Suzhou New District (where SFLS is located) because I have a farewell IGCSE dinner to attend later tonight.  It’s so crazy that another term is finished!  Most of the department is returning next year, but we are losing a teacher or two that I wish we were keeping.

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Me with some of my favourite IGCSE teachers at Nathan’s Art show.

Personally, I’m happy to be staying in the department.  I really like the administration in IGCSE and next year I’ll be taking over as the grade 7 and 8 English teacher.  Right now I only teach 1 writing class but next year I’ll be teaching 3, plus 3 oral and listening classes.  I think it’ll be better for me than teaching Food and Nutrition and I know I’m more qualified for my new role.  Plus, I still get to keep 2 of my drama classes and I’ll be starting a new Publishing and Editing elective next year (my class will be in charge of the school yearbook, the school calendar and our departmental blog!).  Exciting things are in store for me in September!

My grade 7 writing class is one of my favourites to teach, and I know I’m going to miss them over the summer.   These kids are very bright for their age so I decided to teach them how to write simple thesis statements in an effort to better organize their writing.  Michael is a student who tends to be a bit of a downer…always complaining about how tough life is.  I taught him the word ‘optimistic’ earlier this year and he’s used it every chance he could.  This was my favourite use of this word:

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This year I see them twice a week, but next year I get them 6 times a week, so I’m pretty excited about that!  These kids never stop making me laugh!  They are truly a joy!!

IGCSE is a really cool department to be part of.  Although I mostly taught in the Elite Department this past year, I took part in several IGCSE projects and I ran the school yearbook as well.  All of the staff try to provide a well rounded school life for the students and I try to help out whenever I can.  But my favourite thing about IG is the way they help out with a migrant school in Suzhou.

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One of the Blooper Pages for the yearbook.  It’s mostly just Nathan and Adam making faces…but I feel that it well represents the spirit of the IGCSE staff room.

Migrant schools are for children whose parents are from other provinces but who have come to Suzhou for work.  They are highly underfunded and the students don’t as good of an education.  Each class in our department gets a chance to visit a migrant school each team.  This means that nearly every month, my department takes an afternoon to spend time teaching students English.  It’s a learning experience for everyone involved because the migrant kids get some English lessons and the IG kids get to see how lucky they are to be going to a school with the resources that SFLS has.  We have Nathan (my boss) to thank for this added activity for the students.  He’s been working with the migrant school for years and has won awards for the help he’s given them.

So all these little projects have really filled up my year, but none of them took as much of my focus and hard work than  the Drama Festival.  It took months of work, hours of writing, days of rehearsal…but in the end, it was all so worth it!!!

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I was in charge of everything including writing speeches for the MCs, setting up mini shows between each play and writing and directing 4/5 of the plays at the festival this year.  From sets, to sounds to costumes and script…I was involved in all of it!  It was a pretty big job…

Because of my background in writing, I decided early on that my focus was going to be on writing the plays and (of course) having them act them out with comprehend-able English.  Nathan ran the Drama festival last year, and with his art background there was a lot more focus on sets and props, so it was kind of cool to mix it up this year.  I’m especially proud of the way each of my classes came up with their plays:

Step 1:  I began the term in February by teaching my students how to write a story.  First, we focused on writing good characters and making sure that their characters had depth.  Then, I taught them about plot and what a good plot line looks like.

Step 2:   Each class was separated into 4 groups and I gave them 2 weeks to write the outline for a play.  I gave them free reign on the topics and they came up with very different stories.

Step 3:  Each group presented their outline to the class and then the class voted on which play they would do for the drama festival.

Step 4:  I took the winning outline and turned it into a play.  I met with the students and got a better idea of what they wanted to see in their play and discussed ways that we could add characters so everyone who wanted to act could.  Then I wrote the dialogue and presented it to them.  Other than a few small details, the students were thrilled to see their ideas come to life on page in proper English.

Because of the way we did this, there was HUGE buy in from the students at the Drama Festival.  Each class was so proud of their play and they all worked very hard to impress all the other students.  Here’s the breakdown of each play:

Elite 1 Girls Class (Grade 7)

These girls wanted to write a story with a moral, so that’s what we did.  They worked the hardest out of any of my classes on their emphasis and pronunciation and the other students noticed.  Although their play wasn’t as exciting as a lot of the other plays, they really shone because their speech was so clear.  I am very proud of these ladies and I’m super bummed I won’t be teaching them again next year!

Elite 1 Boys Class (Grade 7)

This was one of the funniest plays at the festival.  Adam, the student wearing the big glasses, is a Drama King!  He wrote the outline to a fabulous “Robots and Mad Scientist” type play that the class voted in.  There were several fighting scenes (with correlating sound effects) that had the audience in stitches and everyone loved how the Narrator was killed by the villain in the end.  I was worried about this play before the festival because it seemed like the students weren’t listening to anything I was saying during rehearsals, but someone was obviously paying attention (probably Adam lol!) and they pulled it together in the final hour!  It was an AWESOME play and I’m very excited to be teaching them again next year!

Elite 2 Boys Class (Grade 8)

These were easily the most hardworking students at the Drama Festival.  Not only did they participate more than any other class with the writing of the actual play, but they were practicing in their free time and they added so many things to the play that weren’t in the script.  They OWNED this play and it was a huge success at the festival.

The story line was very funny and although it wasn’t originally suppose to be a comedy, we were all glad it became one.  It was a detective story about a murderer who’s calling card was to leave high-end underwear on his victim’s heads (the underwear wasn’t part of the original script but when I told them they needed to have something memorable in the play, that’s what they thought up….middle school boys are hilarious!!).

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No matter how many times I saw that play performed, I laughed every single time.  I loved watching them from the side of the stage…I’m so proud of these kids!!!

IGCSE (grades 7-9 co-ed classes)

The IGCSE play is the one I’m personally most proud of, because I wrote it all myself.  The students were in the middle of their IGCSE exams during the festival so they didn’t have time to help as much as I would have liked.  Still, they worked hard at remembering their lines and bringing their best actor-selves to the stage.

The play was called ‘Breaking Bad:  Candy Crush Edition’ and it was based on the television show, only instead of crystal meth, the students were selling a special type of candy that was addictive and high in sugar content.  Because the play was set in IGCSE, the kids LOVED the issues brought up (the candy starts as a distraction to break ‘the homework system’ that’s keeping them all prisoner).  Best of all, 3 teachers (myself included) made guest appearances in the play.  Isaac, the Economics teacher. does body building on the side, so he came out and raged at the students for misbehaving, even breaking a meter stick in the process.  Adam’s socks were stolen for candy and I was found crying in a hallway because of all the ants that the candy had attracted into the Food and Nutrition kitchens.  Students and teachers alike loved the play and I think it was the perfect way to end the festival.  Even Mr. Rehan, who prides himself in being quite serious, sent me a message after the Drama Festival was over saying:  “Thank you.  In my 2 years at this school, this is the first time I found something so entertaining”.  Win for Marie!!!!

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Adam playing himself…a stressed out teacher who’s socks have been stolen

So that’s been my spring term!  Lots of projects and lots of hard work…but all worth it!

(I am truly looking forward to next year’s Drama Festival already!!)